Just when one begins to believe the death penalty serves no useful purpose and should be abolished lest more innocent people die than we suspect already have, along comes some mutant whose head should have been pinched off at birth.

How then can society justify the continued existence of the so-called BTK (Bind-Torture-Kill) monster, who terrorized the good people of Wichita, Kan., for 17 years until he was caught and confessed without remorse to save his skin? Isn’t it heaping insult upon injury now to have to pay to keep him fed and clothed behind bars for the rest of his life?

The repulsiveness of Dennis Rader’s visage on television and in the newspapers day after day as he and others detailed his chilling career as a serial murderer was unmatched for a few moments even by the horror of terror in the Middle East. Even the least sensational elements of the media, let alone the cable news vultures, seemed unable to resist telling about it for days on end in the sort of fascination that one derives from watching ants attack a scorpion. The blood and depravity of true crime have never been more realistically replayed.

If this feeling of anger and almost compulsive need for revenge was prevalent in the average viewer or reader, one can only imagine its intensity among those whose loved ones had suffered at his hands. How they were able to sit in the same room with him and listen to his sniveling, self-pitying claptrap and remorseless descriptions of his actions is beyond comprehension. His attempt to find some thread of common bond with his victims was particularly disgusting.

But since the personal solutions about which we fantasized did not, should not take place, the resolution to the immediate problem of how to end the nightmare of BTK as it really deserves is rather simple. He should, of course, be placed in the general prison population, where the odds are better than good that he would survive only a short time. There are those, after all, whose crimes are so enormously obnoxious and inhuman that even the most hardened criminals, perhaps to protect their own shred of humanity, don’t want them in close proximity.

Which, of course, brings us to an examination of the moral legitimacy of capital punishment and whether there are crimes so heinous that wiping the culprit from the face of the earth is the only justice. Considering that technology has made it abundantly clear that dozens of those convicted of a capital offense were actually not guilty, the dilemma of deciding who should die has become far more difficult to resolve.

Certainly it has been adequately demonstrated that capital punishment is of little value as a deterrent. Most murders are committed in the heat of passion or in the commission of another crime. Too often convictions come about because of misidentifications, sloppy defense lawyers, overzealous prosecutors, substandard judges and other failures of the system. To avoid the possibility of such miscarriages it is reasonable to argue that the death penalty is cruel and unusual and, therefore, unconstitutional.

On the other hand, there are criminals so completely devoid of soul or human feeling, so mentally twisted and their crimes so motivated only by demonic satisfaction that their very existence is a blight on and a threat to society. There may be no other satisfactory method of dealing with these creatures than to eradicate them. So when one is caught red-handed, there should be provision for elimination even if he or she pleads guilty as Rader did. But the death penalty is either constitutional or it isn’t. Sadly, the BTKs of our world thus become the best argument for keeping it.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)